… and from Harper’s Ferry, Strother writes…

Posted on October 18, 2010 by


Picking-up from where Strother left off yesterday

Early on the morning of the 18th I went up street and there met Joe Burns who informed me that our boys had had a fight and that seven or eight of them had been wounded, two supposed mortally, this was exciting and hurrying to the Depot I found the Train with the Philadelphia Excursionists just starting. I got on board and went down.

On the way I sat with an old gentleman from Philadelphia and Kunkel, a candidate for Congress from Washington County Maryland. As we discoursed of the tragic scenes of which we had thus far been partially informed, the Democratic candidate for Congress remarked with ill suppressed satisfaction — “This thing will be worth three hundred votes to me in the coming election.

Arrived at Harpersferry I saw the town crowded with military of all arms, uniforms, and in all stages of organization from the quiet effective looking United States Marines to the half armed, half drunk & noisy militiaman. In the Potomac river lay three dead bodies which the arrived mob were shooting at for their amusement. In the street near the old arsenal lay the bloody corpse of a negro whose glassy staring eyes and fallen jaw was hideous to behold. A dog was smelling the mess of coagulated blood which surrounded his head and a couple of pigs were rooting at the body. In the engine house and armoury yard lay three other bodies ghastly & stiff while beside the wall lay another man, said to be Jerry Anderson wallowing in death spasms and half clothed in vestments grimed with dirt and blood. A marine sentinel protected the dying wretch from disturbance, while a crowd, greedy of horrors was pressing forward to get a look at him. In the midst of this tragic scene I heard a voice, speaking in tones of petulant rebuke to the rude men. It was that of a Mountain Beau with a girl on each arm, who seemed disgusted and astonished at the want of manners among the vulgar — Gentlemen, said he, “just give room here” — “Cant you stand back and let the ladies see the corpses”?

As I passed the window at the Old Superintendant’s House, now used as an office, an acquaintance beckoned me to enter. I did so, and found there lying on the floor a marine who was mortally wounded. He was an Irishman named [Luke] Quinn, a mere boy & his sufferings must have been great as his cries and screams made one’s flesh creep. A priest knelt beside him and like the friar in Marmion[:]

“With unavailing cares” “Exhausted all the churches prayers”

to sooth the dying soldiers agony.

In the adjoining office divided from this room by a semi [?] partition of boards about four feet high lay two other wounded men, guarded by a sentinel. One of these a stout comely man lay with his hands folded helplessly across his breast and apparently in the last stages of exhaustion. He did not move, his breathing was scarcely perceptible and the occasional turning of his eyes from side to side was the only sign of life & consciousness. The other was an old man who lay with his head on a leather travelling sack, his person covered with a an military overcoat old quilt and with his feet near a fire which had been hastily kindled in the fire place. The old man’s strongly marked face iron gray hair and white beard were grimed and matted with blood and fresh puddles oozing from wounds in his head collected on the floor and travelling bag. These men were indicated to me as Aaron Stephens and John Brown. The latter the leader of the robber band and the first described his lieutenant. As I knew nothing of the previous history of either of these men I went to work as quietly as I could under the circumstances to make a note of the scene on paper. While I sketched I observed a sudden movement among the people in the Armoury yard — My acquaintance also seeing it, exclaimed hastily– “They are putting up a scaffold” and then ran to the window for better observation. This exclamation was overheard by the subjects of my sketch who instantly exhibited extreme agitation. Stephens lay motionless as usual but the unnatural restlessness of his eyes betrayed the emotion. The Old Man Brown began to turn from side to side, his eyes rolling wildly and his groans drowning the cries of the wounded soldier, all his movement denoting the most ungovernable fear. The sentinel who did not know what was the matter, approached and asked Brown if he wanted to turn over for an easier position. The prisoner said he did and by attention of the soldier he was presently arranged in another position. His groans & agitation still continuing, the sentinel asked if he wanted water. To this Brown also assented, but on water being handed to him, he merely touched the vessel to his lips and put it aside. This exhibition of restless terror was somewhat calmed by my taking occasion to call to my acquaintance: That he was mistaken in the cause of the movement without it seemed only to be curiosity to see the contents of a waggon discovered behind one of the buildings & loaded with mining tools.

A few moments after some persons passing the window open near where the prisoners lay, let all some remarks which renewed their alarm which betrayed itself in the same manner. Seeing some persons apparently in authority enter the room I discontinued my sketching and going around to the proper door entered with them, and after some questions & answers between them and the prisoner, perceiving that they treated him civilly, Brown begged that he might not be given up the mob to be lynched. On this subject he was reassured and we departed. On returning to the Armory Yard I met and was by him introduced to Col. Robert Lee, Lieutenant Stuart and Captain Green of the Marines, the officer who led the assault on the engine house and who had personally wounded and captured Brown. Lieutenant Stewart of the Cavalry had served under his father in law, Philip St. George Cooke in the Kansas troubles and on being introduced inquired of me if I had seen Old John Brown, the leader of the Abolition band. I replied that I had seen the reputed captain of the banditti but had had no previous knowledge of him. “That,” said he, “is the celebrated John Brown of Kansas notoriety, a man so infamous for his robberies and murders that if the people here knew his antecedents he would not be permitted to live five minutes.”

This information for the first time, enlightened me as to the real character of the sett [sic] who had assailed Harpers Ferry. I had made up my mind notwithstanding all that I had seen and heard that this was merely a band of vulgar robbers who had come to possess themselves of the Paymaster’s strong box and had raised an alarm of insurrection among the negroes merely to confuse the neighborhood that they might escape the more readily with their booty. The connection of the party with Kansas immediately invested the affair with an importance which it had not assumed in my eyes and accompanied by Lieutenant Stewart I returned to visit the wounded prisoner a second time that I might take a more careful sketch of the captain.

The lieutenant spoke roughly to Brown and ordered him to draw the covering that I might get a better view of his face, damned him and said he was not so much hurt as he pretended. The officer had been too familiar with his tricks in Kansas to be deceived here. To this Brown made no reply but turned his glassy eyes from one to the other in silence. His face so grimed with blood that I could get no satisfactory view of him, and Stewart then suggested that some one should be sent to wash him up and dress his wounds.

Stephens then spoke up with more life than I had supposed was left him. “Yes,” said he, “it is a shame that a man like that should be so maltreated and neglected. Not a surgeon has been near him and no one has paid him the least attention. If there is any manhood in you, and you are not a sett of old women you should immediately have him cared for. “You son of a bitch,” replied Stewart, “you had better keep silence. Your treatment is to be that of midnight thieves and murderers, not of men take. in honourable warfare. If you came to make war, why didn’t you bring a surgeon with you?” Stephens was silent–I could scarcely think that the wretch really believed they were entitled to better treatment, but imagine he made the claim, hoping to impose upon his captors by impudent assumption and thereby secure for himself and fellow the position of prisoners of war.

From this I went up to the rifle works and saw several bodies lying out, in the stream among the rocks, and in a cooper’s shop below the hideous corpse of a mulatto named Leary who after having been wounded in the river was brought ashore and died miserably after ten hours of suffering. Returning to the point I visited the spot where Beckham, the mayor of Harpers Ferry, fell. The boards were stained with dark blood marks and tufts of white hair were visible sticking to them.

Observing a considerable accession to the military force I was informed that Governor Wise had arrived with several hundred men from Richmond and that he was going over to examine the prisoners. I went over and remained in the room for several hours during which the examination continued I found it rather tedious and thought the examination very ill conducted and unsatisfactory, when it might have afforded an opportunity of eliciting most important information to the public. Gov. Wise was more taken up his own talk than that of John Brown and far more absorbed in the effect he was producing than observant of his prisoner’s demeanor.

Brown appeared on that occasion in a better light than I ever saw him before or afterward. The presence of the Governor flattered his vanity (which was excessive) while his magnanimous manner and somewhat overstrained dignity gave an importance to the interview which pleased both parties and gave assurance of immediate personal safety to the prisoner. Under these circumstances Brown was apparently frank, honest, and communicative. He answered all questions considerately and directly without attempting argument or prevarication, simply declining to rely to such questions as might dangerously implicate others. That he purposely misstated some things on this occasion we have clearly ascertained, but that general tenor of his confession was truthful I am inclined to believe. He candidly stated that the subject of his inroad into Virginia was to free the slaves and by their assistance with the aid or connivance of the non-slaveholding whites to overthrow the social and political institutions in the Southern States and to erect in their stead a government and laws already organized by himself and his followers. This plan of government recognized complete equality between whites and blacks and all existing rights of property except the property in slaves and all property owned by slave-holders. All such property was to be forfeited to the state and given over to the emancipated negroes and the needy leaders in the war of freedom. He, John Brown, was to be the commander in chief of the armies of the new government while among his immediate followers were several high officers of the anticipated state. Kagi was named as Secretary of State, I think; Copeland, a good looking mulatto was to be a judge of the Supreme Court. Shields Green, the negro barber, was already elected a member of Congress while upon the persons of the wretches who were slain on land and water were found regularly made out commissions entitling them to the posts of captain, lieutenant, honourable, etc.

More to follow from Strother, at a later point.